Insurance Companies Deploy Private Firefighters in Wildfire-Scorched California

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A home in the fabled Southern California beach town of Malibu burns in the Woolsey Fire. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

As the smoke begins to clear in the well-heeled city of Hidden Hills, California, a small handful of homeowners are discovering that as exhausting as keeping up with the Kardashians can be, it certainly doesn't hurt to live next to them.

Several residents in this sleepy celebrity enclave tucked away in the western San Fernando Valley have Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West to thank for their own multi-million dollar homes being spared from the Woolsey Fire, a wind-fueled inferno that began roaring through Los Angeles and Ventura counties on Nov. 8, and as of this writing is only 47 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

Or, to be more accurate, these residents likely have the Wests' home insurance policy to thank.

As first reported by TMZ, the raging wildfire began to encroach on Chez Kim and Kanye shortly after Hidden Hills was placed under mandatory evacuation. It was then that a hose- and shovel-wielding squad of private firefighters descended on the property, successfully saving it from the fate that has befallen homes belonging to other well-known — and not so-well-known — names in surrounding communities including Calabasas and Malibu. (Although first reported as being destroyed, it appears that the Malibu pad of estranged Kardashian parental figure, Caitlyn Jenner, narrowly survived the blaze.)

Explains TMZ: "The couple's home sits at the end of a cul-de-sac and borders a field — meaning if their place went up in flames, it would start a domino effect on the whole neighborhood. Ultimately, they [the private firefighters] successfully saved the Wests' $60 million house ... and countless others on the block."

While TMZ notes that the private team of firefighters was "hired" by the Kardashian-West clan to fend off the flames, it's likely that the couple's insurance provider — in a maneuver to prevent potentially catastrophic damages — deployed the team to save the very, very expensive home.

Woosley Fire in hills above Malibu
Hundreds of homes have been lost to the fast-spreading Woolsey Fire. Over 250,000 people have been evacuated and at least two lives have been lost since the blaze began on Nov. 8. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

A supplementary (and spendy) mode of protection

And, as it turns out, this — insurance companies offering private fire protection services to policyholders — isn't as uncommon as you might think.

As Quartz reported late last year, major insurers such as AIG and Chubbs have been offering policyholders an extra layer of protection for some time now (2005 and 2008, respectively) when the home in question happens to be located in a wildfire-prone area.

Often, and not surprisingly so, the property is required to be valued at $1 million or more. Having access to professionally trained private firefighting teams — or as Vanity Fair calls them "concierge firefighters" — can add thousands upon thousands of dollars to a homeowners' annual home insurance tab depending on the value of the property.

And for those who can afford such peace of mind, this is one niche service well worth the cost. As Quartz notes, it's also financially advantageous to insurers. Deploying private firefighting teams to wealthy ZIP codes doesn't come cheap but it is ultimately less costly than paying out a policyholder whose multi-million dollar manse and everything in it has been reduced to smoldering ruins.

Per the National Wildfire Suppression Association, there are 150 private firefighting companies across the country with a total of 12,000 firefighters and support staff in their ranks. Numerous ZIP codes — predominately wealthy ones — offer the services of these companies in a total of 18 states. The cost incurred by these firms after responding to the threat of a wildfire is then billed directly to the insurers, not to the homeowners.

As David Torgensen, president of Bozeman, Montana-based wildfire mitigation firm Wildfire Defense Systems, tells Quartz, his teams possess the same certifications as public firefighting entities and work in cooperation with, not independently of, local and state authorities. Their work is also predominately preventative. That is, they arrive on the scene before the fire to clear away combustible object, dig fire lines and spray the perimeter of a vulnerable property with fire retardant gels (as seems to be the case with the Kardashian-West property in Hidden Hills.)

On that note, Torgensen points out that his firm doesn't exclusively cater to ultra-rich policyholders. He notes that 90 percent of the properties covered by insurers that his company partners with are "average-priced" and not celebrity-owned mini-palaces located in the toniest of California neighborhoods. Firms that work outside of the insurance framework and directly on a for-hire basis with individual homeowners, which could be the case with Kim and Kanye, are more rare.

Burning Malibu abode
A Malibu abode is incinerated by the Woolsey Fire. Spanning Los Angeles and Ventura counties, it has burned nearly 100,000 acres. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

"We were literally surrounded by fires," Sonoma County homeowner Fred Giuffrida told NBC News of the threat against his 16-acre ranch when a spate of raging wildfires including the intensely destructive Tubbs Fire broke out across Northern California in October 2017. "All the vegetation up to the pool area was burned, and they had stopped it before it got to the house."

The "they" in this instance were professional firefighters — a team from Torgensen's Wildfire Defense Systems — automatically deployed by Giuffrida's insurer, Chubb, through its Wildfire Defense Services program.

Speaking to NBC, Torgensen again stresses the supplementary nature of his firm, which enables first responders from public agencies to better focus on active fires in lieu of mitigating risk around insured homes. "Our specific goal is to work with policyholder structures," he says. "We're only allowed to access the properties that we're given permission to access by policyholders."

"They were fighting battles in so many places, so I think the fact that this supplemented it really saved our house," adds Giuffrida.

Protecting a home from fire in Agoura Hills, California
Firefighters work to protect a home in the city of Agoura Hills. Many neighborhoods have since allowed evacuated residents to return. (Photo: Matthew Simmons/Getty Images)

'I could care less who owns the house'

While the supplementary nature of private firefighting companies contracted by insurers can't be emphasized enough, some critics point out that residential wildfire mitigation services shouldn't only be available to those who can afford them as part of an insurance policy.

As noted by Quartz, author and activist Naomi Klein refers to the small but growing private firefighting industry as an example of what she calls
"disaster apartheid," a phenomenon in which well-off individuals are better prepared to survive climate-related disasters than their friends and neighbors who, in this instance, might not be able to afford an insurance policy that includes rapid-response from a private entity.

Others, such as Chris Landry, volunteer battalion chief with Sonoma Valley Fire, argue that the firefighting squads deployed by insurers like AIG and Chubb don't always work in concert with public first responders, and sometimes risk impeding the grueling and dangerous task at hand.

"I've never seen them check in," Landry explains to NBC News. "We don't have common communication. I don't know what they're qualified at. I don't know where they are, because I'm not supervising them. They report to the insurer. We don't know their equipment capabilities, their training, their level of experience."

He adds: "I understand where the insurance companies are coming from," says Landry. "But we don't look at one house separate from another based on who the insurer is. I could care less who owns the house, I just want to save as many as possible — and do it safely without endangering my crews."

The West Hills neighborhood of LA burns
The Woolsey Fire plows through West Hills. This San Fernando Valley nabe was one of many in the region under evacuation orders. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Stephen Poux, global head of Risk Management and Loss Prevention with AIG, argues that all fire mitigation personnel contracted by the firm are extensively trained former firefighters who are updated on new protocols and procedures as they arise.

"I cannot overemphasize the importance of safety for our employees," he says.

Cal Fire Deputy Chief of Information Scott McLean tells NBC News that he's not aware of private firefighters interfering at active at fire scenes or causing any sort of logistical problems. "They're a help because of the preventative aspects," he says. "We can work together, we just need to make sure we do work together."

Potential issues of on-the-ground communication and cooperation aside, there's no doubt that private firefighting services fueled by what Motherboard calls the "growing risk of climate change-related damages" will only increase in ubiquity.

In addition to Woolsey Fire, which has already burned over 97,000 acres and destroyed upwards of 400 structures, there are currently two other major fires burning across the severely charred Golden State — where unprecedented wildfires are now the "new normal" — as of this writing.

Burning north of Sacramento in Butte County is the Camp Fire, which has claimed 135,000 acres and counting. Considered the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, it has taken 48 lives while destroying thousands of homes. Dozens of area residents still remain unaccounted for. It remains only 35 percent contained. Back in Ventura County, not too far from the Woolsey Fire, is the smaller (4,531 acres burned) Hill Fire, which at this point, has been almost completely snuffed out.

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